Debra Siemsen and Jan Mackenthun

Sharing information about United Way of McLeod County were Debra Siemsen, United Way’s new program manager, and Jan Mackenthun, United Way board secretary. Highlights include the reactivation of the nonprofit’s popular Dolly Parton Imagination Library program.

Next time you've got money to share or time to spare, give Debra Siemsen a call. She's the new part-time program manager at United Way of McLeod County. She joined the local nonprofit in mid-May.

“It's a unique way to be part of helping the community,” Siemsen said. “I want United Way to become the first resource for the community. We want to serve babies to the eldest treasured people. We want to serve everyone.”

The Hutchinson native was looking for a part-time job that would allow her to help the community as well as work with her co-administrator position at Gethsemane Lutheran Church of Dassel. She found it with the local United Way chapter.

Siemsen brings to her new position a background in customer service and administration, both important skills in selling a mission and raising money. She expects her schedule to be 8 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. To meet with her, you'll need to do it via phone, computer or in person. United Way no longer has a physical office in Hutchinson. It's something the board decided last year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Siemsen doesn't see the lack of a physical space as a barrier to meeting people or raising awareness and funds for United Way. She's passionate about getting the word out.

CHANGING TIMES

Supporting local communities is a tradition that United Way has cultivated since 1967. The nonprofit describes itself as "more than just fundraisers. ... We are hand-raisers, friend-raisers and game-changers."

United Way does this by bringing people from all walks of life together to make communities stronger. Many know United Way through its workplace fundraising campaign. In the past, it was launched in August at the McLeod County Fair and continued into March. The money was used to award grants to programs in McLeod County according to the amount fundraised that year.

This focus is changing. While United Way will continue to fundraise throughout the year, and there will also be grant opportunities, the nonprofit wants to make a more sustainable community impact.

While many organizations stepped back during the COVID-19 pandemic, United Way of McLeod County focused on service projects. It partnered with the McLeod Emergency Food Shelf to sponsor two food drives and with  Common Cup Ministry for its winter coat drive. It also received a $1,400 grant from Hutchinson Health Foundation for its mental health initiative, which included partnering with the McLeod County Corn and Soybean Growers Association to sponsor the digital presentation "Loss of Dreams, Ambiguity, a Pandemic and Resiliency" by Ted Bowman, a grief and loss counselor. 

It also gave out $49,500 in grants during its 2021 fiscal year from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. The money went to 18 programs focused in the areas of health, education and financial stability.

Since joining the local nonprofit, the new program manager has focused on two areas: learning about the local chapter as well as the state and national organizations. To help her navigate is mentor Kevin Dietrich, executive director of United Way of West Central Minnesota, and Jan Mackenthun, secretary of the local United Way board.

Mackenthun was introduced to United Way when she worked at the Glencoe-Silver Lake ECFE program. She wrote several grants that were funded. Among the activities United Way supported were takeout kits, which included 10 copies of the same board book and a curriculum. 

"It was extremely popular and it's getting used by the classroom teachers," she said. "The children felt so excited to follow along in their own books."

When Mackenthun retired from teaching, she had time to give back and she opted to give it to United Way. She's been a board member for more than eight years.

While she may have left her teaching days behind her, Mackenthun has stepped up and become the local nonprofit's No. 1 grant writer. Among her recent successes is a $2,000 grant from the I.J. Burich Foundation. The money will be used to reactivate the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. 

United Way of McLeod County began offering Imagination Library in 2009 as its signature program. At its peak, it had enrolled roughly 1,500 children and delivered 97,913 books to homes in McLeod County. When the cost of the program collided with a cutback in funding, it was put on hiatus. 

The good news is UWMC is reactivating the Imagination Library program this summer. Look for Siemsen and United Way volunteers at local festivals where families can learn more about the free program and register. 

"Literacy is such an important program," Mackenthun said. "That's the beauty of this program: high-quality, hardcover books selected by a team of reading specialists."

Siemsen agreed.

"Providing free books to those who may not have had that, that's exciting to me," she said.